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April 2007

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


Federal Courts Aim to Make Jury Service Pleasant and Informative

“Probably 99 percent of the people who come here for jury service have never been inside a federal courthouse before,” said Cindy St. Pierre, a jury administration clerk for the Middle District of Pennsylvania in Scranton. “They seem quite surprised to discover it’s not as intimidating as they thought.”

She added: “Everyone in our courthouse, including our judges, work toward making jury service a pleasant learning experience. We don’t want to waste folks’ time. If you come in, you’re likely going to be in voir dire. And if a case is settled or a plea entered, the presiding judge will visit the jury room and explain how their presence made the settlement or the plea possible.”

Many federal courts nationwide are mounting similar efforts to make jury service as positive an experience as possible.

In the Western District of Washington, people reporting for jury service receive small welcome baskets with snacks and treats, a welcome letter, and an exit questionnaire. “The feedback we’ve received has helped shape the information we post on our website and how it is displayed,” said Jeff Humenik, a jury administrator in Seattle.

The availability of online information for prospective jurors is just one of many technological developments in recent years. Online communication also can be a two-way street. “We send our questionnaires out by snail mail but those contacted can reply either by snail mail or online by going to the court’s website,” said Jury Administrator Bonnie Olsen of the Eastern District of Virginia in Norfolk. “Each year, the number who respond online grows.”

Relatedly, the Administrative Office has begun work on a national webpage that will allow prospective jurors to complete qualification questionnaires and obtain reporting information online. Deployment of that product, an enhancement to the Jury Management System, will begin in 2008.

Courts in the Seventh Circuit have conducted a series of pilot studies in which judges agree to employ different techniques in their jury trials, and then the judges, lawyers, and jurors report via survey questionnaires how well they think those techniques worked.

In the Ninth Circuit, a 15-member Jury Trial Improvement Committee issued its second report last October, with recommendations and suggested best practices.

Among its recommendations:

    – Include juror-related training for judges during new judge orientations and recommend appropriate judicial training be provided by the Federal Judicial Center.

    – Permit juror note-taking during a trial, and provide individual juror trial books in appropriate cases.

    – Provide all jurors with both preliminary and final jury instructions in written form.

The committee’s chair, Judge Susan Bolton in the District of Arizona, said both Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Mary Schroeder and the circuit’s Judicial Council have endorsed its recommendations, and have urged all district judges in the circuit to utilize them.

“Some of the recommendations are appropriate in all cases, and some may be appropriate only in some cases,” Bolton said. “But it is an antiquated notion to think that jurors simply sit in court with their hands folded and then make the best decision that can be made for the case. Jurors need to stay engaged and interested in the process.”

Bolton added that jurors cannot be expected to reach an informed decision if they are not allowed to tell the court when they are not comprehending some aspect of the case.

Joanne Cook, a jury administrator for the District of Idaho and a committee member, said, “The committee’s work is just another sign that our courts are taking very seriously their efforts to make the jury service process as efficient as it can be.”

The committee’s report recommended allowing jurors to take notes, and providing individual juror trial books in appropriate cases “to enhance juror comprehension and memory.”

“There are a variety of ways to manage the confidentiality of these notes in order to protect against their misuse,” the report said. “The court can require that jurors do not remove their notes from the courthouse and order that notes be destroyed after the trial.”

“Trial books can assist juror note-taking and enhance the juror’s memory. Trial books should include the preliminary jury instructions. Readily available copies of key exhibits can result in fewer questions from the jury once they have begun deliberations. When dealing with technical or complicated concepts, it may prove beneficial to include a glossary in the notebooks to enhance juror recall of testimony, increase comprehension, and reduce confusion during deliberation,” the report said. “During deliberations, each juror should have a copy of the final written instructions.”

One of the components of a National Center for State Courts (NCSC) national study on jury system improvements was a recent survey of judges and attorneys reporting their trial experiences. Among the more than 11,000 survey responses received were 884 about federal court trials. Federal judges submitted 235 of those survey responses.

“The data show some fascinating differences among the federal circuits with respect to the frequency of using techniques such as juror note-taking . . . to improve juror comprehension and performance,” said Paula Hannaford-Agor, director of the NCSC’s Center for Jury Studies.

Comparisons between federal and state courts also are drawn. Jurors were allowed to take notes during trial in 71.2 percent of the federal proceedings referred to by survey respondents, and 69 percent of state court proceedings.

Juries were allowed at least one copy of written instructions during their deliberations in 79.4 percent of the federal cases and 68.5 percent of the state cases. And each juror received a copy of written instructions in 39 percent of the federal cases and 32.6 percent of the state cases.

The Judicial Conference’s Executive Committee in March called for several jury-related reviews, including “possible measures with regard to the summoning of potential jurors that could make jury service less burdensome and more cost-effective.” The Conference Committee on Court Administration and Case Management will study this issue.